The Frontal Cortex

Reality is Fake?

I had the pleasure of studying philosophy with Nick Bostrom while at Oxford. He’s a great teacher, but, unlike John Tierney, I’m not persuaded by his latest conjecture:

Until I talked to Nick Bostrom, a philosopher at Oxford University, it never occurred to me that our universe might be somebody else’s hobby. I hadn’t imagined that the omniscient, omnipotent creator of the heavens and earth could be an advanced version of a guy who spends his weekends building model railroads or overseeing video-game worlds like the Sims.

But now it seems quite possible. In fact, if you accept a pretty reasonable assumption of Dr. Bostrom’s, it is almost a mathematical certainty that we are living in someone else’s computer simulation.

Dr. Bostrom assumes that technological advances could produce a computer with more processing power than all the brains in the world, and that advanced humans, or “posthumans,” could run “ancestor simulations” of their evolutionary history by creating virtual worlds inhabited by virtual people with fully developed virtual nervous systems.

Some computer experts have projected, based on trends in processing power, that we will have such a computer by the middle of this century, but it doesn’t matter for Dr. Bostrom’s argument whether it takes 50 years or 5 million years. If civilization survived long enough to reach that stage, and if the posthumans were to run lots of simulations for research purposes or entertainment, then the number of virtual ancestors they created would be vastly greater than the number of real ancestors.

For me, the possibility of simulating reality isn’t about processing power. I have little doubt that our microchips will continue to get faster and faster. But framing the issue in terms of processing power obscures the real difficulty with generating a Matrix-like hallucination of the universe: writing the code. Even if humans construct a computer capable of faking reality (i.e., it’s fast enough), I doubt we’ll ever be able to program that computer to actually run reality.

Why not? Because I think there’s an ever expanding lag between our microchips and our ability to program those microchips. Computers keep on getting faster, but we still can’t design a version of Microsoft Word that doesn’t crash. We’ve got huge mainframes that can make millions of calculations per second, and yet we have great difficulty simulating even a simple neuronal circuit.

I’m guessing that this gap exists because simulating reality, or even complex things like the cortex, requires a complete knowledge of the relevant fundamental laws. In other words, you can’t simulate a brain until you know exactly how the brain works. Otherwise your simulation will suck. So even if we have a computer of infinite power, until our knowledge is perfect, that hypothetical computer won’t be able to conjure up a pretend reality. A microchip is only as good as its code, and our codes aren’t very good.

Here, by the way, is the relevant Bostrom paper.


  1. #1 Oran Kelley
    August 14, 2007

    Well, if we were part of the simulation ourselves, perhaps the code is pretty bad, just we can’t tell.

  2. #2 Daniel
    August 14, 2007

    Is our universe just somebody’s hobby? Mabye. I have come to the conclusion that all we can really be sure of is that we have “impressions of order.”

    Yet, it is my “impression” that this conjecture is not true. It is my “impression” that this is just another one of many attempts to categorize this mysterious existence into something that is succinct and easy to conceptualize. If one really wonders about the nature of this mysterious exisence, then the conjecture that it is all someone’s hobby does not stop my curiousity, nor curtail my wondering, because, now I wonder about whose hobby my existence is.

  3. #3 Daniel
    August 14, 2007

    Just another comment: I think this conjecture just demonstrates how creative and fanciful the human mind can be.

  4. No, reality is not fake.

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  5. #5 Ahcuah
    August 14, 2007

    So, I guess it’s hobbies all the way down?

  6. #6 TomS
    August 14, 2007

    May I suggest that your argument that reality is too difficult to be programed has affinity with the idea that intelligent design is the best way to produce results.

    If so, then the argument that reality is programmed also has that fault.

  7. #7 kjupi
    August 14, 2007

    While I definitely think that the software angle makes for a potent critique of “the singularity-or-similar is nigh”-type futurism, I’ve never understood it to pose any truly insurmountable obstacles to technological progress. None of the predictions on which Bostrom bases his argument are time-sensitive, so if it’s plausible to think that we (or our successors, or whatever) will be better at designing software a hundred or a thousand or a trillion years from now, then I’d say the software objection isn’t really appropriate in this case.

    Well, if we were part of the simulation ourselves, perhaps the code is pretty bad, just we can’t tell.

    I think that’s a good point. Even if their universe crashed almost constantly, people living in a simulation wouldn’t necessarily know it. And despite whatever problems it might have, people still manage to use Microsoft Word, so bugginess clearly isn’t an absolute bar to utility.

  8. #8 Spaulding
    August 14, 2007

    I think there’s an ever expanding lag between our microchips and our ability to program those microchips.

    But part of the techno-utopian premise is that we humans won’t have to make these programs. If we can make a computer that is mentally superior to us, then almost by definition it will have the capability of designing a system superior to itself. And that system will likewise have the capability to design a system superior to itself. After a few generations of AI, system limitations may not reflect human limitations at all. Making things like word processing programs and massive simulations might be trivial tasks to an Nth-generation AI.

    So in theory, it’s just about acheiving the “critical mass” of the first strong AI, and then sitting back as the AIs dwarf our own achievements. Or maybe we’d be fighing Skynet or blah blah Matrix. It all works with the premise.

    Granted, Bostrom’s conjecture just comes across as fun exercise in intellectual masturbation – but it’s really not limited by human programming ability if we’re good enough to reach that critical mass of strong AI.

  9. #9 Ted
    August 14, 2007

    …reach that critical mass of strong AI

    Does AI have something akin to the the three laws of robotics?

    It’s a pretty strong supposition that a sufficiently advanced AI wouldn’t find us irrationally inefficient. Emotion, chemicals and all.

  10. #10 Elf M. Sternberg
    August 14, 2007

    Jonah: You make the mistake of assuming that programming can’t match the successful emergent properties of physics (which lead to properties of chemistry, biology, etc. etc…). Nick’s argument is that it doesn’t have to: the universe could be based upon evolved emergence systems using very few rules, with the selection algorithms based upon the simulationists’ desires, rather than distinct and targeted programming projects. We’re less like a word processor and more like Will Wright’s Spore project.

    Besides, Nick’s argument has one nice corresponding effect: it explains the Fermi Paradox. We don’t see stellar engineering efforts and aren’t being impacted by any interstellar polities simply because there aren’t any: they’re just not part of the simulation.

  11. #11 Dave
    August 14, 2007

    No one stands on the shoulders of a fool for very long.

  12. #12 Torbjörn Larsson, OM
    August 14, 2007

    The real work these arguments (simulations, brains in a vat, Boltzmann’s Brains, Last Thursdays, creationism) should do is to motivate new physics. But what I can see they can’t do that. They are both unfalsifiable as noted here and essentially begging the question since we can only discuss and predict the current physics. (And some are improbable, like interfacing into vat brains individual thought patterns.)

    So I must ask if they have a use? It doesn’t look that way to me.

    it explains the Fermi Paradox

    But not falsifiably, because they would also predict not seeing the Fermi Paradox. AFAIU the “paradox” itself has this property. (One possible alternative embedded in the paradox is that they wish to conceal themselves.)

    So again, is there a problem or any explanatory power in the proposed alternatives?

  13. #13 Ray King
    August 14, 2007

    Hey, time to wake up! It’s real, what you see is what you get, so let’s just get with what is going on as we live it. It’s real, on real time. Really!

  14. #14 kjupi
    August 14, 2007

    AFAIU the “paradox” itself has this property. (One possible alternative embedded in the paradox is that they wish to conceal themselves.)

    I do not understand this. The Fermi paradox makes the assertion that the apparent dearth of technologically advanced life in our cosmic vicinity is inconsistent with many predictions as to the probable distribution of said. That being so, wouldn’t a discovery to the effect that advanced civilizations tend to have the means and the inclination to conceal themselves (admittedly not a falsifiable claim, but a conceivably verifiable one) serve exactly to falsify the Fermi paradox, in the sense that it would demonstrate that the perceived inconsistency isn’t actually strange at all?

  15. #15 caribbeanwaffle
    August 15, 2007

    Great topic! What if computers wrote the programs? Obviously that is where we are headed. And is it necessary to know how the brain works to simulate reality for humans, or is it sufficient to have complete understanding of cognition (also hard)? Virtual reality research doesn’t have much contact with neuroscience, yet makes progress. Reality is also obviously NOT too difficult to be programmed, as our finite brains do it convincingly (though with low-fidelity).

  16. #16 ngong
    August 15, 2007

    I’m not sure you need a zillion lines of code. You just need the laws of physics, and a monstrous memory. If nothing interesting evolves in your simulation, you hit “reset” and change the constants of nature a bit.

  17. #17 holden_mcgroin
    August 15, 2007

    I agree with ngong. The code could be very simple, like a cellular automata. You can even evolve all the possible universes simultaneously, this idea was made popular by Jurgen Schmidhuber, see

  18. #18 Daniel
    August 15, 2007

    It all depends on what you mean by “real” and “fake.” I have the impression that the world in which I dwell is “real.” We are only supposing that it might be “fake.”

  19. #19 Zachary Tong
    August 15, 2007

    I wrote a response to this article yesterday but it quickly became too long to post here. It touches on what ngong mentioned: namely that intelligent life does not need to be intelligently designed by hand. Evolution worked for us, there is no reason to doubt it wouldn’t work in a simulated environment. And furthermore, to intelligent beings in such a simulation, their reality is no less persuasive to them as our reality is to us. Their existence is not trivialized by the fact they are our simulation.

  20. #20 Daniel
    August 15, 2007

    Zachary Tong said in the previous comment more clearly what I tried to say about what one means by “real” and “fake.”

  21. #21 Torbjörn Larsson, OM
    August 15, 2007

    The Fermi paradox makes the assertion that the apparent dearth of technologically advanced life in our cosmic vicinity is inconsistent with many predictions as to the probable distribution of said.

    Agreed, but it does so by modeling such life on our own and extrapolating capability. That would be falsifiable. But the first assumption is dubious, or perhaps incomplete.

    So when we don’t observe any other advanced life we don’t really have any conclusions to make. Either there isn’t much ETI’s around or they are for some reason or other undetectable. How do we falsify that, or in other words what have we discovered?

    But I must say that you make a strong case that if we learn more about the constraints of civilizations, perhaps we can shore up enough predictive power to make some conclusions here.

  22. #22 Epistaxis
    August 15, 2007

    I remember Dan Dennett taking a shot at the math and finding that just the one-for-one simulation of the molecules in a grain of sand, Heisenberg notwithstanding, would involve more computations than could be completed in the lifetime of the universe. Or something like that.

    But I guess our universe would have to be much smaller than the one in which the divine dollhouse exists.

  23. #23 mike
    December 10, 2007

    Is our universe just somebody’s hobby? Maybe. I have come to the conclusion that all we can really be sure of is that we have “impressions of order.” no we can actually sense it,

    … forget the atificial intellignce, and start seeing other human beings as actors(artificial,but real) within your reality, say a certain group of people are living their reality as it unfolds, unquestionably, now, suppose their is another group of people whose hobby is to act in and amongst the unquestionables, here you can see what you would call normal people walking into a unfolding reality that is being created by actors, who are by the way indestinguishable from the normals. These actors can entice, promote, manipulate, thought broadcast, control, there normal counterparts experience , by creating their own simulations for these people. IN bars, at parties, on the street, anywhere the actors decide to execute their scripts, can you see what im saying,